U.S. private hiring slows, trade deficit widens

Productivity data tumbling at 3.2 per cent annual rate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. companies hired far fewer workers than expected last month, while the country's trade deficit hit its widest point in two years in April, suggesting trade remained a drag on economic growth this quarter.

But the data on Wednesday nevertheless suggested the economy was growing solidly, with payroll growth still fairly robust and demand for imports surging

Private employers added 179,000 jobs to their payrolls in May, the ADP National Employment Report showed. That compared to 215,000 jobs in April and was below economists' expectations for a gain of 210,000 jobs in May.

It was released ahead of the government's comprehensive employment report on Friday. The ADP report does not have a good record predicting non-farm payrolls.

In a second report, the Commerce Department said the trade gap increased 6.9 per cent to US$47.2 billion as imports hit a record high. It was the largest deficit since April 2012 and followed a $44.2 billion shortfall in March.

When adjusted for inflation, the deficit increased to US$53.8 billion from US$50.9 billion in March.

U.S. stock index future were trading lower, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt prices rose.

Trade subtracted almost a percentage point from first-quarter gross domestic product. The economy contracted at a one per cent annual pace in the first three months of the year.

While there are signs that growth has since rebounded this quarter, gross domestic product growth will probably not top the 3.5 per cent rate that economists are anticipating.

Imports increased 1.2 per cent to an all-time high of US$240.6 billion in April. Imports of automobiles, capital goods, food and consumer goods all hit record highs in April.

The rise in capital goods could pointing to a pickup in inventory accumulation by businesses, which could boost growth.

The trade deficit with the European Union was the largest on record, as was the gap withGermany.

Imports from South Korea also touched a record high, while Chinese imports rose 16.3 per cent.

That pushed up the politically sensitive trade gap with China to US$27.3 billion from US$20.4 billion in March.

Exports slipped 0.2 per cent to US$193.3 billion.

Separately the Labor Department said non-farm productivity fell at its sharpest pace in six years in the first quarter as harsh winter weather depressed output, leading to a jump in labour-related production costs.

The government revised productivity data to show it tumbling at a 3.2 per cent annual rate. That was the biggest drop since the first quarter of 2008. It had initially been reported falling at a 1.7 per cent rate.

Workers put in more hours in the first quarter but with output falling, that raised labour costs. Unit labour costs, the price of labour per single unit of output, surged at a revised 5.7 per cent rate.

It was the biggest rise in unit labour costs since the fourth quarter of 2012. Unit labour costs were previously reported to have increased at a 4.2 per cent rate. They fell at a 0.6 per cent rate in the fourth quarter.

Despite the jump last quarter, there was little sign that wage inflation was igniting. Unit labour costs rose by a revised 1.2 per cent compared to the first quarter of 2013.

They had previously been reported to have increased at a 0.9 per cent rate.

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